If you like “sensuous coming-of-age stories” – and who doesn’t? – there’s a novel out about George Frideric Handel’s life in the closet.
If the author hoped to create a Twitter storm around the idea of a homosexual Handel, she’s almost twenty years too late. Handel regularly features at the top of lists of LGBTQ composers, and his gayness was cited as a fact on which musicologists “seem to agree” in the New York Times.
Besides, didn’t the composer himself remove all remaining doubts by cowriting a Pet Shop Boys song in 2012?
Fact or gossip?
I admit that I myself have frequently enjoyed repeating this juicy piece of knowledge. However, I almost never got the shocked response I was hoping for. Probably because people consider a certain level of gayness self-evident in an era where all gentlemen of means chose to dress like Liberace.
It seems I owe all these people an apology. Because I recently decided to check the facts instead of acting like a common gossipmonger. And I found that the idea of a homosexual Handel is completely baseless.
Why Handel could have been gay
The rumors around Handel’s sexuality mainly originate from the book Handel as Orpheus by Ellen T. Harris. Although I should immediately add that Ms. Harris herself has since declared that the belief that she dubbed Handel a homosexual is “ridiculous”.
So, what did she write in her book? Mainly that:
- Handel spent a lot of his early years loitering in Italian courts and English country estates that were regularly frequented (if not run) by men with same-sex desires.
- the works which he wrote there (the Italian cantatas and theatrical works such as Acis and Galatea) contain homosexual subtexts, for instance in the way they avoid identifying the gender of the person being lovingly serenated.
Add that to the undisputable fact that Handel remained a bachelor all his life, and one might start to wonder …
Why Handel wasn’t gay
There’s just not a shred of evidence that places like Cannons or Burlington House were hotspots of homoerotic activity. And there are no contemporary sources that link people like Alexander Pope or even the conspicuously named John Gay to homosexual behaviors.
You might think that such an absence of first-hand accounts is due to 18th century squeamishness about the love that dare not speak its name. But you would be wrong. At least in England, accusing public figures of sodomy was a national pastime. And as a foreign-born composer of ‘effeminate’ Italian operas, with strong ties to the not universally loved German royal family, Handel would have made an ideal victim.
That Handel wasn’t gay doesn’t make him straight
Although it’s a lot less ludicrous, this discussion bears some resemblance to the claim that Beethoven was black. Just like people from African descent, the LGBTQ community could use more high-profile icons in the domain of classical music. It’s almost a pity that historical evidence doesn’t allow them that satisfaction.
However, there’s also an important difference. While a non-black Beethoven is evidently a white Beethoven, a not openly gay Handel is not necessarily a heterosexual Handel. It’s just a Handel of whom we don’t know the sexual inclinations.
That goes for almost all composers before the late 19th century. Taking on a homosexual identity was literally unthinkable in those days. So it’s impossible to say which way their deepest desires went.
And does that matter? Is there such a thing as gay music? That’s worth a wholly separate discussion.
For the moment, I’ll leave you with a piece of gossip that is verified. In the privacy of his own home, the composer of the manliest oeuvre of the 19th century preferred lace corsets to steel armor and winged helmets.
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